SocraticGadfly: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Fakes

April 19, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Fakes

Or, Indiana Jones and the Heap of Junk, as The Independent labels his new movie.

Those 12 “Mayan” crystal skulls set to feature prominently in Harrison Ford’s latest (and please, doorknob, LAST) installment in the Indy cycle, titled “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”?

They may be many things, but Mayan definitely ain’t one of them, according to French scholars.

First, here’s the New Ageish and other general nutbar claims about the skulls:
Twelve such skulls, carved from solid crystal or quartz, are known to exist. Three of them are in national museum collections in Britain, the United States and France. Nine are in private hands. They have become the subject of feverish speculation by New Age writers about their purported extra-terrestrial origins. Held at a certain angle, in a certain light, it is suggested, the skulls become crystal balls which reveal the unmistakeable outline of a flying saucer.

According to one version of events, the 12 skulls – and a missing 13th sister skull – must be lined up or piled in a pyramid on or before the last day in the Mayan calendar, 21 December 2012. Otherwise the globe will fly off its axis.

Yeah, and George Bush will actually do something about global warming.

Here’s what the reality-based world already knew about them, before the most recent scientific research:
The British Museum, which owns one example, concluded 11 years ago that its skull had probably been polished by a wheeled machine. The pre-Colombian civilisations on the American continents discovered many things, but not the wheel.

The French researchers not only say they know this didn’t come from ancient Mayans or Aztecs, but that they do know where it did come from, instead:
The “French skull” was probably made in a small village in southern Germany in the second half of the 19th century. The quartz from which it is made is of Alpine, not Central American, origin. The pre-Colombian origin of the “French skull,” and probably several of the others, was almost certainly concocted by the French adventurer and antique merchant, Eugène Boban, who sold it to a wealthy French collector in 1875.

“The grooves and perforations (on the skull) clearly show the use of jewelry drills and other modern tools,” said Yves Le Fur, the deputy head of collections at the Quai Branly. “It is inconceivable that such precision was the work of pre-Colombian artists.”

The Smithsonian and the Louvre’s research department are also chiming in:
“Although nearly all of the crystal skulls have at times been identified as Aztec, Toltec, Mixtec or occasionally Maya, they do not reflect the artistic or stylistic characteristics of any of these cultures,” Smithsonian anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh points out. She believes that some of the earlier skulls were faked in Mexico in the 19th century. Others probably came from Europe. The “Skull of Doom” was probably a fake of one of these fakes.

Her findings tally almost exactly with those of the French museums’ research centre, C2RMF. This agency, run by the Louvre, establishes the identity of disputed art works and explores old artistic techniques. It is regarded as the most advanced organisation of its kind in the world.

The centre states “with a reasonable degree of certainty” that the “French” skull at the Quai Branly and the “British” skull in the British Museum came from the village of Idar-Oberstein in southern Germany. The village is known to have specialised in making similar objects as bases for crucifixes in the period 1867 to 1886. This would explain why the “French” skull has identical-sized holes at top and bottom.

Analysis of the quartz used in the skull has identified the material as of Alpine origin.

The story goes on to explain how Boban was in Mexico at about the time “Emperor” Maximilian withdrew, and how he made himself familiar with pre-Columbian art.

No, holding one of these skulls next to a computer won’t crash your hard drive. Holding scientific research next to them, though, does crash yet another New Age myth.

It remains to be seen whether the sight of senior citizen Harrison Ford trying to battle Cate Blanchett and other foes will crash ticket sales.

For a couple of previews of the movie, go here.

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